Being a Better Writer: Micro-Blast #5 – Logistics, Combat, Social Activism

Hello readers! Welcome back after another weekend! I hope yours went well. Mine had some pretty good occurrences (one of which I won’t spoil just yet) and was also a good opportunity to step back and assess everything I’ve got on my plate at the moment. Especially with regards to writing, because Jungle is in it’s last quarter on the first draft, which means it’s soon going to be time for me to switch gears over to Shadow of an Empire and start cleaning that up for publication!

My bad, this isn’t a news post. I just got a little excited there. The weekend is my recharge time, usually, so it’s nice to come back with a bit of a boost.

Anyway, time for a Micro-Blast! Beginning, as usual, with a quick recap of what a Micro-Blast is. For the new or the uninitiated, it’s usually done when I near the end of a topic list and have a few leftover topics that don’t quite seem worthy of a full post on their own, but are still little useful tidbits of advice. Rather than discarding them outright, though, I decided to just bundle them into one larger post that addresses each one individually. Because honestly, discussing these isn’t bad. They’re just not large enough topics to warrant more than a few paragraphs’ worth of material. But there is still value in discussing them.

So, now that you’re caught up, let’s get this post underway and clean out Topic List IX!

Logistics and Battles
Stop me (or rather don’t) if you’ve heard this one before: The heroes have just returned/arrived at the keep of the macguffin, or the ruler macguffin, or well, whatever, alright? A place that is important for some reason. Usually a medieval city of some kind with a castle. Anyway, they’ve just made it there, but the evil army is hot on their heels and arrives to do battle with the heroes and whatever army they can muster in order to lay claim to or sack said city. The heroes buy some time (or just have some) and watch from the walls of the city as the evil army makes camp, ten thousand strong, with all their campfires, as they settle in. Generic fantasy battle setup number 14 (I just made that up, but there probably is a classification somewhere).

Still with me? Okay, now jump forward seven days and tell me if you’ve heard of this one before. A week later everything’s dissolved into anarchy on both sides. The evil foe’s army has turned on itself out of lack of food and supplies—they were an evil army, not a wagon train. Most of them have disbanded and turned into opportunistic warbands trying to find food in the nearby forests or fighting with one another because there isn’t much around to feed their standing army. Meanwhile, the city is in similar dire straights, lacking any sort of supplies to withstand a long-term siege, but the only bright spot is that the siege is already falling apart.

Now, some of you may have actually read a story where this happens. But many of you have likely not, and worse, you’ve read the opposite.

See, a lot of writers get fixated on the big, showy parts of a war (like the battles) and forget everything else that goes into them. Like camp followers. Got an army of 1000 soldiers? It’s going to take at least half as many again to make sure that your army is fed, clothed, and supplied. Especially in a pre-industrial society. You want to talk ground-breaking changes in war? Go read up on how canning food changed military combat. Until the invention of canning, food supplies for an army were an intensely difficult proposition, and armies had a tendency to strip the world bare around them as they traveled. Canning allowed armies to be supplied with food for long periods and move through areas where food was scarce that before then would have taken much more planning and care.

Of course, with canning came all new issues, such as “Okay, we can create food for our soldiers in safety and send it to them in easily shipped packages” (which means you likely won’t have to protect scavengers in the field) but now someone has to get the food to them. Which means you need a more robust supply line than you had before (as before you could trust an army to scavenge, but if you’re lessening that ability in exchange for mobility, then you need to protect that chain bringing food from safe territory).

All of this (and much, much more) falls under the general heading of Logistics, and it’s a topic that any young writer who wants to tell tales of warfare and combat needs to study. Because there are unfortunately a lot of stories out there that completely fail to understand how important to war logistics are to the field of battle. Without logistics, there is no warfare, yet too many books out there completely ignore logistics either because they think it’s boring/doesn’t add anything or they just don’t know about it. The later can be fixed with some good old-fashioned study, but the latter …

The latter is just plain wrong. There, I’ve said it. Logistics are extremely formulative in battles, and a proper understanding and utilization of logistics can take a basic “punch up” story in wonderful directions.

Let me give you an example. The Powder Mage Trilogy is a fantasy series about a post-revolution magic kingdom in an era of gunpowder. Essentially, the book opens the day after the protagonist has successfully carried out his revolution and beheaded the king and royal family. Now, a skeptic might look at that and say “Wait, who’d want to read that? The real story is about setting up the revolution, not after its over!”

But they’re wrong. See, the revolution is over … but now the protagonist has to try and struggle to take the pieces of a nation he shattered and stick it back together. For starters, there are factions in the nation still supporting the monarchy that are fighting against him. And neighboring nations, all of whom have kings, are already marching with their armies to pick up a piece of his. And to add to all of this, he’s just shattered an economy. How will he pay, house, or feed his troops?

All of these questions (and more) serve to enhance the story. Instead of the book being “Well, their army is coming, let’s get ours, then let’s me and him fight,” which a lot of books do turn into, instead it becomes a case of “D*** it man, we need FOOD! My army can’t march on an empty stomach! We’ll have to sacrifice that city. We could arrive before them and take it, but without food we’ll simply starve. We could never hold. We’ll have to fall back the next in line. If we sacrifice the city, the fields around it are too open in our direction for them to establish good supply-lines. We’ll hold the city southward and meet them where they’re overextended …” And etc, etc.

Point being, not only will an understanding of logistics and how they work make your story that much more real, they’ll also introduce a lot more subtlety to your battles and wars, giving you more complex plots and strategies than simply slamming armies at one another. Armies require food. Clothes. Funding. Intelligence. Communications. Think about the how and where in your head. Learn logistics.


The Speed and Range of Combat
And while we’re on the topic … Another thing you should be reading up on if you want to write action stories or anything related is both the speed that combat and battles happen at, as well as the differences between ranges. Or crud, the difficulties of ranges. Engaging someone within twenty feet with a pistol? You’d better be a good shot and prepare for a fight, because even if you hit them, you may not hit anything vital, and while they’ll still be dead, they’re going to have enough time with their adrenaline to perhaps make you dead as well. They’re definitely going to reach you and try.

Simply put, for every book out there that puts forth a good effort in making the combat feel real, there is another that doesn’t even try, where the author shows only the slightest understanding of the elements involved. If you’re going to write a book with a dashing, sword-wielding protagonist … learn about swords! Do some research! Look up real sword techniques and watch some videos on Youtube so you have a good idea of how things look in motion and how real sword combat works and sounds. The same goes for any other form of combat or action. Learn a little bit about it.

Don’t worry, you can still engage in flynning. After all, a lot of films and books do. But with research, you’ll have a good idea of where to draw the lines, and what will and what won’t work.

Now, I did say this was going to be about speed and range, right? Well, those are things too. Combat, especially close combat, can be blisteringly fast, almost blink-and-you-miss-it fast. Don’t give into the temptation to write a play-by-play unless you’re following the kind of character who can do a play by play. And even the best at that are going to be a little “instinctive” rather than conscious.

Similarly, the range at which combat takes place is important too. I’m not going to get deeply into this one, but a lot of what you see in say … Call of Duty? Knife-fight range. Yes, even the sniper weapons. Not to say that it doesn’t happen, but if you’re going to write about a firefight, learn a little about the ranges and strategies involved first. Melee combat and ranged are different, and involved different approaches.


Social Media and Activism
So, you’ve built your own site, or mailing list, you’ve got some followers now who enjoy your works and read what you post. And you just woke up and saw that X political candidate said Y thing you just can’t stand. Why not let the world know? What’s the harm? It might even get you new readers, right?

Right?

Well … no, actually. It probably will, but only in the short term. See, when you’re an author, especially in today’s world, an ounce of temperance is worth its weight in gold.

What’s the harm, you may ask? Potentially saying something that could damage your career. If you’re a new author especially, it could bury it.

See, when you jump out in support or against something that’s heavily based on public opinion, you immediately put yourself at risk of being a target of that same public opinion. Or the opposing opinion. Many a new author has attempted to garner support by announcing public support for a hot-button political or social topic, only to find themselves suddenly in the crosshairs as the social groups that support it find something about said author that they don’t like. Or they fully support the author, but in doing so permanently brand them as associated with whatever else they support. So this support may seem positive … only for you to discover a dozen or more negatives attached. And suddenly all those potential readers who know about the negatives and see you lumped in with that group aren’t going to be that inclined to buy your book.

Now, I’m not saying you should be completely silent on any opinions and stances. Crud, I’ve taken stands on things before. At the same time, I was attacked for it and smeared publicly by opposing social groups who disagreed, believing otherwise. And that was one of the few times I’ve taken such a stance, but even being a relatively unknown author I still got my name smeared in several locations.

And this can be devastating. We live in an era of flash-in-the-pan social views and fads. There’s a new “outrage” every week … sometimes every day. And getting pulled into that mire even once can mark the beginning of a permanent association.

Worse, it’s a blasted time-sink. Every heard the saying that the smallest group screams the loudest? That’s true of a lot of “issues” these days, many of which are simply fabricated in order to acquire views and attention for websites and advertising revenue. Attempting to even rationally respond to all of them isn’t just a commitment, it’d be more than a full-time job. Crud, there are sites specifically devoted to curating outrage news, and even they get overwhelmed.

And at the end of the day, most of the “outrage” will have burned out by the next day, with those that are perpetually looking for such strife to feed off of (outrage vampires?) having moved on to the next target. But if you’ve come under their crosshairs, however, even when the issue is forgotten, their impact on you won’t be. Once you get that reticule on you, it may never really go away, and you’ll be constantly wondering if it’ll ever light up again.

Being on the other side of things isn’t much better. Writing to be an outrage vampire, for the attention and hits? Well, it’s a bit like being that person who snarks at everyone at a party. At first, some might find it fun and hang around with them, but as the night moves on, they realize that the individual just isn’t fun to be around, because everything they say drags everyone around them down, and worse, when they run out of targets because everyone else stops paying attention to them or goes elsewhere, the only targets left are those around them.

I’ve seen this happen first-hand. I came across one young, wanna-be author who’d started work on their first book, and at the same time started a website to blog about the work behind it and what they were doing. And then they gradually started getting involved with socio-political issues. And as they wrote more and more about it, in turn it began influencing everything that they were doing. They started offering reviews of other work as content on their site, but all through the lens of what they kept getting caught up in and writing about. As time went on, not only did their work on their book stop, but they were becoming more and more vitriolic as well. Which in turn began driving away what readers they had, and likewise attracted ones who were enjoying the vitriol. Which meant that they moved to being even more vitriolic, as that was attracting attention. Enemies, too, but what did that matter?

One thing led to another, and they eventually started posting and saying things so outrageous that they drove away what was left of their original followers. At the same time, the “outrage” crowd began to wane as other “issues” beckoned, and so their “followers” who where there for the fire left for newer as well. Which left in the end only the enemies they’d made by posting and writing such outrageous stuff in the first place, who hounded until finally, the site and blog were abandoned, the once wanna-be author slinking away under the curtain of anonymity to hide from the burned wreckage they’d built, blaming everyone else for what had happened.

Yeah. What they’d thought would lead to success, attention, and change only lead to one of those. And the change was “No one is interested in reading anything of yours anymore.”

Now, again, I’m not saying you can’t have opinions on things. But be moderate in how you use them. Don’t leap out to your twitter account every time something socially or politically unacceptable happens. Sure, it might get you attention … but it’s fleeting attention, or attention that requires constant reinforcement and playing to what that audience wants constantly to keep it—and a single misstep with a crowd so laser-focused can see you burned by that focus instead. A lot of these outrage groups live off of the exclusionary “with us or against us” principle too, which means that trying to go for something in the middle of the road will just see you made an enemy of both sides.

Crud, and if you anger them … You’d better have thick skin. The online world gives us great tools, but some like to use those tools to negative effect. Death threats, swatting, brigading (where hundreds or thousands swarm everything associated with an individual to ruin them, such as flooding Amazon with 1-star reviews for the books of authors that have displeased them in some way).

It’s a mess. A mire. A swamp of ruin that you’re better off not trekking through.

If you really want to stand for something, obviously, then do. But make sure it’s worth standing for, and not something that will be forgotten in a week in favor of the next political/social outrage. And again, temperance. We want to write books, not preach to a crowd (and don’t mix the two; those books only ever end up preaching to the choir).

In sum? You can have opinions on things. Just remember what your readers and fans are on your site for, and what they read your books for. The moment you get sucked into a whirlpool of muckraking and dedicated social media activism, not only do you invite all kinds of potentially hazardous attention, but you stop delivering to your readers what they started following you for: The books. The adventure.

Social media and activism can be enticing, with it’s fast-paced world of highs and lows. But if you’re tempted, ask yourself what you really want to be, and take a long look at those lows … especially how many of them there are compared to the highs.


All right, readers! With that, there is only one topic left on Topic List IX! See you all next week.

Good luck. Now go get writing!

 

 

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